Playful learning in higher education – game design as a teaching tool

The traditional lecture at Universities is more and more replaced by interactive teaching methods. Research shows that active participation of students in the classroom has positive effects on their learning success. So called ‘active learning’ combines different elements like writing, reading, talking and reflecting. This teaching style is mainly based on interaction and cooperation between students. Games contain many of these elements. That is why we observe a trend towards the inclusion of games in class room settings. Games are artificial activities, taking place in a specific context, and setting goals and rules for gamers. Most importantly, games provide an experimental learning environment, they offer the possibility to interact with each other, to test different strategies, and to evaluate individual actions.

In spring 2016, Dr. Rebecca Welge and I conducted the seminar “We the people – Designing Democracy” at the Department of Political Science, University of Zurich, (at the M.A. and PhD level). In this course we used game development as an innovative teaching approach in higher education and invited students to get actively involved in the process of designing a game about democracy. One goal of the seminar was to develop and design a board game that illustrates both the core elements of democracy as well as trade-offs in designing democratic systems. Another goal of the seminar was to motivate students to approach the highly abstract and complex topic of democracy in an active and engaging way.

The course was structured along the lines of the research topic (in our case “democracy”) and game design. The aim of the course was to develop a board game prototype which should include both a cooperative element in which players, together, need to ensure a minimum level of democracy (i.e. electoral democracy) to win the game; as well as a competitive element, so that each player should aim to maximize different functions of democracy, striving to implement different models of democracy (majoritarian, consensus, liberal, deliberative, or participative). To help us with the complex issue of the game design process we cooperated with the board game blogger and designer Robert Lovell from ThreeBlindDice.


In general, using game development as a playful learning and teaching tool is applicable to many different topics. It lends itself especially well to teaching in the social sciences – due to the affinity of game design to modelling human interactions, but it can be transferred to other areas of study. The educational benefit of game development lies in its unique potential to motivate students to approach highly complex and abstract scientific concepts and theories. It creates an inclusive and participative learning environment – animating students to work together both as researches and designers. With the final goal of the course in mind – a game prototype – students approach the course topic at hand with a different (goal oriented) perspective. Each individual session of the course is highly interactive and students themselves are allowed to influence the progression of the course itself. Moreover, translating highly complex issues into game mechanisms and elements enables students to train the process of knowledge transfer hands on.

In december 2016, we have been awarded with additional funding from the Lehrkredit of the University of Zurich to further develop this educational tool and provide supporting information for other teachers to apply this instrument as well. Moreover, to distribute the idea of game design as a knowledge transfer product we cooperate with the association Demokrative which fosters civic education in Switzerland.

Upcoming events:

  • Let’s Play – Analoge Spiele und Spielelemente in der Lehre
    didactica, Hochschuldidaktik-Weiterbildung
    University of Zurich, March 1-2, 2018, 9am-5pm
  • Aktives Lernen durch die Entwicklung von (analogen) Spielen
    Projektabschlussworkshop kompetitiver Lehrkredit UZH
    University of Zurich, April 9-10, 2018, 9am-5pm


See video on educational game development (in german):